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Notes from Limmudfest 2008

The Foundations of Jewish Prayer: The Concluding Prayers

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

The prayers at the beginning and the end of the service are more interesting than the core prayers in the middle, because the centre is fixed: when people added things, they did so at the beginning and end.

At the time of the Talmud, there were two different communities of Jewish practice. Babylonian Judaism spread with Islam; Israeli Judaism spread with the spread of Rome. As R. Weiner argued in his previous talk, the Ashkenazim derived their customs from Israel, not from Babylon and the Babylonian Talmud. Indeed, though the early Ashkenazim knew about the Babylonian Talmud, they did not consider it halachically binding on them until the time of Rashi. Once Rashi committed to the Babylonian Talmud, the whole of the Ashkenazi world did so: The centre of the Ashkenazi world had been in the Rhineland, which was where Rashi went to study, but after they were all killed there in the First Crusade, he became the preeminent figure in Ashkenaz.

The modes of prayer in early Israel were very different to those of today. When the service ended, people did not go home but continued doing other things, including what they called the סִדְרָא—the "lesson", i.e. study. Not like a שִׁיעוּר today but reciting bits of the תנ״ך together with its translation.

אַשְׁרֵי is said a second time, because it has to be said three times a day. (The Talmud says anyone who says it three times a day is guaranteed a place in the World to Come. Two of the times are in שַׁחֲרִית because מַעֲרִיב was originally optional.)

וּבָא לְצִיֹון גֹואֵל contains the Vision of G-d in Isaiah chapter 6, and Ezekiel's Vision of G-d. This is the סִדְרָא, called here קְדוּשָׁה דְסִדְרָא. Over time its content became ritualised and formalised. These are the highlights from the Prophets. We get the original verse and then the Aramaic translation. Also a quote from the Song at the Sea.

The instinct to put something at the end of the service—Mishna or whatever—is very strong: so we have studied something and not just said the same words every day. This instinct is so strong we find it in different forms: once the סִדְרָא was incorporated, the cycle repeated with אין כאלהינו, etc. This almost goes back to the community of Israel, where the service could go on for an hour or hour and a half after the end of the service proper.

There was also another, very much longer, סִדְרָא, which was at the end of Shabbos. This opens with וִיהִי נֹעַם: a verse from Psalm 90. Then Psalm 91 follows. Then קְדוּשָׁה דְסִדְרָא (again). Then (in the Ashkenazi tradition only) וַיִתֵּן־לָךְ, etc, etc. This is the סִדְרָא of אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Why does it go on forever? We read it and we're all wanting to go home at that point; didn't they in ancient Israel want to go home too?

וִיהִי נֹעַם reads: "Let the pleasantness of the LORD our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us: the work of our hands, establish it." We are standing on the border between Shabbos and the week of work. Hence we ask G-d to bless the work of our hands.

Psalm 91: Can be found in the liturgy primarily in the funeral service. In some traditions it is recited over and over again on walking to the burial ground, in others on filling in the grave. It is a psalm asking for protection; wherever you are at the border between life and death: The gateway is open for the מַלְאָךְ הַמָּוֶת to come out and do its deed—hence the need for protection. This is why this is recited before bed time. Likewise also מוֹצְאֵי שַׁבָּת. This psalm appears for two reasons: First, it follows Psalm 90: they like to introduce a psalm by reciting the last line of the previous psalm—compare also the opening of אשרי. Possibly this last sentence brought Psalm 91 in here. The second reason is the need for protection.

Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim ch. 4:

Those women who do not do work after Shabbos—this is not a proper custom. Not to do work uintil the end of the Sidra—that is a proper custom.

Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 65b:

And this question was asked by Turnusrufus of R. Akiva: "Wherein does the Sabbath differ from any other day?" He replied: "Wherein does one man differ from another?"1 "Because my Lord [the Emperor] wishes it."

"The Sabbath too," R. Akiva rejoined, "then, is distinguished because the LORD wishes so."

He replied, "I ask this: Who tells you that this day is the Sabbath?" He answered: "Let the river Sambatyon2 prove it; let the ba`al ov3 prove it; let your father's grave, whence no smoke ascends on the Sabbath, prove it." He said to him: "You have shamed, disgraced and reviled him by this proof."4

The whole week smoke ascended from his grave, as he was being burnt in the fires of purgatory; but even the wicked in Gehenna have rest from their torments on the Sabbath.

1. I.e. what makes you a general?

2. A mythical river filled with a torrent of water and rocks, which calmed down on the Sabbath.

3. A necromancer—you can't bring back the dead on Sabbath!

4. I.e. you have said that [Turnus Rufus]'s father is burning in Hell.

The same story can be found in Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 11:5. The more a story travels, the more it changes, so possibly the Israeli version is more original. Here the Roman is called Tinneus Rufus. Here he actually summons up his father and can't on the Sabbath. And his father explains afterward why not.

5. The wicked Tinneus Rufus asked R. Akiva: "Why does this day [the Sabbath] differ from other days?" "Why does one many differ from other men?" he retorted. "What did I ask you and what did you answer me?" inquired he. "You asked me," he replied, "why does the Sabbath differ from all other days," and I answered you, "Why does Rufus differ from all other men?" "Because the Emperor desired to honour him," said he. "Then this day, too, the Holy One wished to honour." "How can you prove it to me?" "Let the River Sambatyon prove it, which carries stones the whole week but allows them to rest on the Sabbath."

"You are evading the question," he exclaimed. "Then let him who brings up the dead prove it," he replied, "for every day he [the dead] comes up but not on the Sabbath." He went and made a test with his own father: every day he came up, but on the Sabbath he did not come up. After the Sabbath he brought him up [again]. "Father," said he, "have you become a Jew after death! Why did you ascend during the whole week but not on the Sabbath?" "He who does not keep the Sabbath among you of his own free will must keep it here in spite of himself." "But what toil have you there?" he demanded. "The whole week we undergo judgement, but on the Sabbath we rest." Then he went back to R. Akiva and said to him: "If it is as you say that the Holy One, blessed be He, honours the Sabbath, then He should not stir up winds or cause the rain to fall on that day." "Woe to that man!" he exclaimed; "it is like one who carries [objects] four cubits."

I.e. for G-d it's trivial, not breaking Shabbos.

מדרש תנחומא פ׳ כי תשא סימן לג:

R. Akiva was walking through a forest. He saw a man, darkened with coal dust, carrying a large burden of firewood on his head and running at a very rapid pace. R. Akiva ordered him to stop, and the man stood for R. Akiva.

"Why are you running with such a heavy load? If you are a slave, I shall free you! If you are poor and must exert yourself to such an inhuman extent, let me give you money and make you wealthy."

"Please," the man entreated R. Akiva. "Let me continue my work."

"Are you a human or are you from the demons?"

"I am neither a poor man nor a slave. I am a soul that is being punished by collecting huge amounts of fire wood for a giant fire into which I am going to be cast."

"Tell me, what was your occupation when you lived in this world?"

The man answered, "I was a tax collector. I took bribes from the rich, and I had the poor executed. Not only that, I had illicit relations with an engaged girl on the holiest day of the year, on Yom Kippur."*

Rabbi Akiva inquired, "My son, have you not heard that something from the other worlds that could be done to help you and alleviate your suffering?"

"Please," he cried, "Allow me to resume my work. My task masters will be angry with me and punish me further. They say I have no way of being redeemed. Had I a son who would stand up in public and cause others to praise G-d, then they could release me from this punishment. But I left a wife who was pregnant; who knows if she had a son or a daughter. And he were a boy, who would teach him Torah?"

"What is your name?"

"My name is Akiva, my wife's name is Shosmira, and I was from the town of Elduka."

Rabbi Akiva felt extremely bad because of this soul, and he searched from town to until until he came to that very town. He asked in the town, "Where is this man's house?"

The villagers answered in hatred, "May his bones be ground to dust in Hell!"

"Where is this man's wife?"

The villagers answered with bitterness, "May her name and memory be blotted out from this world!"

"Where is this man's child?"

"He is uncircumcised, and no one will circumcise him!"

Rabbi Akiva grabbed the man's son and began to teach him Torah. Rabbi Akiva fasted for forty days, and then heard a voice from heaven: "Rabbi Akiva, do you fast for this boy?"

Answered Rabbi Akiva, "Yes!"

"Teach him to read and write. Teach him to recite Grace After Meals, teach him to say the שמע and to pray. When the boy shall pray in public, causing the people to praise G-d's name, then the punishment shall be lifted from this man."

When this happened, the soul of the man came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream. "You have spared my soul from the punishments of Hell."

(See also here for a later version of this story, differing only in the details.)

* I.e. about as many bad things as was possible.

[Note: the earliest version of this story involved ברככ את ה׳ המבורך and the congregation replied יהא שמא רבה מברך—this was the custom in ancient Israel on מוציא שבת.

This is all in the background of the inclusion of Psalm 92 in the prayer service nowadays.

וַיִתֵּן־לָךְ, etc, was the tradition in Israel because as long as they were sitting there studying, they were prolonging Shabbos. The longer they were doing that, they were keeping the souls from going back into Gehinnom. The Babylonians had their own traditions, but the Sephardim did not see this as a such a dangerous time, so they did not prolong this service.

(Why not say Psalm 92 if there is a Yom Tov in the following week? Because it's not a full work week, hence Psalm 41 does not apply, hence no Psalm 92.)


This is a very early prayer. It's original context is the עֲמִידָה on ראֹשׁ הַשָׁנָה—the one time we bow down in our prayers. From there it went to Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashana there are three themes in מוּסַף. Each has a collection of ten verses; each has a paragraph introducing the theme. That for the מַלְכוּיִוֹת section is עָלֵינוּ.

In history it took on a completely different role, though, into the daily service. The early reference is in the Chronicle of Ephraim of Blois, tenth century, talking about the massacre of the Jews in Blois, in an early blood libel. Someone came and reported the massacre to him, and said that as the Jew died they sang a song with a haunting melody; and anyone who heard it could not get the melody out of their mind. They investigated and it turned out to be עָלֵינוּ.

Why did this turn into a martyr's prayer? In mediaeval siddurim, the line הוּא אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֵין עוֹד is printed in big letters; hence martyrs refusing to become Christians recited it as their declaration of faith. עָלֵינוּ is a strong polemic against idolatry.

In the persecution of the Middle Ages, it became an important enough declaration of faith to be added to the end of every service.

Further, some of the lines of עָלֵינוּ were very difficult: שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וָרִיק וּמִתְפַלְּלִים אֶל אֵל לאֹ יוֹשִׁיעַ "for they [the other nations] worship emptiness and vanity, and bow to a god that does not save." This is not delivered against Christianity—it is older than that, but it became interpreted that way.

In the Middle Ages the Jews were censored—sometimes by a Church censor, and sometimes self-censored before the Church could get to them. The censors could not always read Hebrew but knew particular words to look out for, e.g. גוֹי—which led to some strange changes to the liturgy. (In מס׳ עבודה זרה, where it talks about the types of fruits and vegetables, אלה המינים בבית שאן, "these are the types in Beth Shean", because מינים can also mean "heretics", this was replaced by עקום, meaning star-worshippers, thus leading to the line "These are the star-worshippers there are in Beth Shean: the watermelons and the cucumbers," etc.)

When Menashe ben Israel petitioned Oliver Cromwell for the Jews to be readmitted to England, he references the עָלֵינוּ, saying how could you possibly say the Jews prayed against the Christians—even though the עָלֵינוּ is pre-Christian, they are so sensitive to the feelings of Christians that they take this line out of עָלֵינוּ.

Some people used to spit on the ground at הֶבֶל וָרִיק. (This gave rise to a Yiddish phrase: "He gets there for the spitting" [like today saying they get to shul for אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם].) When the Jews started to be emancipated, this was dropped. There are lots of interesting responsa amongst the rabbis about this.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-09-24 04:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Thank you for this post. It is interesting to read.

Date: 2008-09-24 07:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] awful-dynne.livejournal.com
I have a question related to your post...my grandfather has been asking me to find out for a while who created the siddur, and I've told him that it is my understanding that many rabbis came together and put it together over a period of time...do you have a more definitive answer or resource by any chance?
Thank you!

Date: 2008-09-25 12:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
You could do worse than seeing what Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siddur) and the Jewish Encyclopedia (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=497&letter=P) have to say.

In brief, the core of the services—the Shema and its blessings, the Amida, and Pesukei deZimra—go back to Talmudic times, but were not arranged in order in one book until Amram Gaon made the first siddur (only he called it Seder Rav Amram because the word siddur hadn't been invented yet). The Kaddish (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaddish) is first attested there too.

The Shema is obviously Toraitic, and much of Pesukei deZimra is from the Book of Psalms. The Amida is attested in the Talmud but many of the themes, though not the words, go back to Ben Sira (http://lethargic-man.livejournal.com/173652.html).

The Torah service was originally separate from the three daily services, and was instituted by Ezra the Scribe; however, how old the paraphernalia that accompanies the reading today is, I don't know. (See also history of the Haftarah (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haftarah).)

In mediaeval times a lot of piyyutim were added; many of these are no longer in today's siddur but some (Adon Olam, El Adon, etc) are.

History of Aleinu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleinu).

The Kabbolas Shabbos service was invented by the Kabbalists of Safed five hundred years ago, but the custom of reading Psalms 92 and 93 at the end were already ancient when Maimonides referred to them.

The most recent parts to be added are the Prayer for the Government (nineteenth century Germany, though obviously this takes a different form everywhere, including the quaintly Victorian Prayer for the Royal Family in United Synagogue shuls here <rolls eyes>), and the Prayer for the State of Israel (fairly obviously, twentieth century).



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